Going into the race, I didn't expect to write a recap but I sort of did it to myself. That was the best race I've ever put together and I have a feeling of complete satisfaction with the morning's effort. Anyone with a competitive fiber in their body can agree, that's hard to do!
In the 8 weeks between the Berlin Marathon and JFK, I ran every other day for most of October and then put in 2 weeks of ~10-12 miles/day of running in early November. My speed work consisted of ripping a mile at the end of a few runs and a quarter mile at the end of others. I hit the trails twice (a lot for me, sadly) and did a couple of quality 16 mile runs. I did a few sets of strides and one measly fartlek workout. Not very much, right? Correct! 10 days before race day, I finally pulled the trigger on signing up after a nudge from race director and friend, Mike Spinnler. Mentally, I was excited to go run my ass off and with a little help from my physical therapist friend, Tom Stott, I was good enough physically.
What I didn’t have in fitness would be made up for by 3 things: a crew, a nutrition plan, and some degree of old man strength. I'm 26 and as the bartender at the race's hotel pointed out the night before, I don't look a day older than 20. But this is the 15th race of 26.2 or longer that I've done! Last time I ran JFK, I was only 13 months removed from my first marathon under 2:50. I’ve lost count of this stuff now. That’s probably healthy. When did I get so old?
I practiced eating nearly every kind of PowerBar product at the beginning and during my training runs. Regular gels, caffeinated gels, energy blasts (chews), harvest bars, gluten free harvest bars, wafers, regular PowerBars... you name it. I did no practicing of glycogen depleted running. I mean, I don't like the feeling of hunger and I'm not a starving rodent in a desert so why would I?
The weather was very conducive to fast running on race morning with temperatures climbing from 30 to 50 and no wind. I was playing with house money having already nailed a few satisfying races already. An aggressive plan of aiming for 6 hours and then blowing up less than last time sounded good. I finished in 6:18 back in 2012 but walked/jogged it in with a pace of 8:20/mile on the 8.5 miles of road running at the end.
I linked up with my Falls Road teammate, Dusty Meeker, and Chris Mead early on. A pack of ~10 of us including 3 ex-Saucony Hurricane runners and Mike Wardian hit the AT together. 2 runners including the 2014 JFK winner, Jim Walmsley, had an early advantage over the rest of us. In addition to eating a PowerBar at the start line, I ate two more during the first 2 hours of the race on AT. I chatted with each of the runners near me during this early stretch of the race. Inevitably questions like these are asked: How many ultras have you done? How far is your longest training run? How fast have you run a marathon?
I think most ultra-running veterans would agree that my biggest strength at a race like this is flat road running. I have a good stomach and some aptitude for mental toughness but smooth running at 6:00/mile on the roads is a good attribute to have at JFK. Back in 2012, I was off the AT in 16th place and within 5 miles, I had picked up a handful of runners who just weren’t the kind of guys who are going to run a 2:50 marathon easily in the middle of a 50 mile race. Nothing wrong with that but you aren’t going to be knocking on the door of breaking 6 hours here if you can’t run a sub 2:40 marathon on an easy course.
I learned that every runner around me had very good road speed having recently run as fast as 2:18 and as slow as a paltry 2:30 marathon. Holy moly… I thought I was special! These are some killer road runners. They aren’t going to drop like flies when we hit the towpath. No worries though… you can’t race people for the next 5 hours anyway. The plan stays the same – take what pace comes easy and don’t quit on nutrition.
Dropping down Weverton Cliffs, I could hear Ryan McGrath whaling, "GRAAAHAM!" Ah, just like running at home in Baltimore! My crew (Ryan, Thom Ripley, and my dad, Henry) and I were a little sloppy at swapping gear here but acted as a well-oiled machine after that. My dad would go back several minutes on the course to ask me what I wanted and then called ahead to relay my requests. Over the top treatment! I’m spoiled, I know. But I’d do the same thing for them and they know that so I can be a little demanding, right?
I was onto the C&O (mile 15.5) in 6th, 7 minutes ahead of last year and just steps ahead of Dusty with a few others not far behind. By mile 20, I was passed by 2 fellow road speedsters and back in 8th place. Physically, I was only okay. My hip flexors were tight as if I had just run 20 miles hard rather than easy. Eek… maybe this whole no long run thing wasn’t so smart. Mentally, I was a bit frustrated with this and was being a baby about the strong competition around me. Burdick (2:20 marathoner) and the two other runners were now out of sight in front of me and negative thoughts crept in. I mean, I didn’t train for this. These guys are the same caliber of road runners as I am and they’ve no doubt trained more. I don’t deserve to beat them. I guess we’re just going to have 8 guys finish at around 6:00 or faster! That’d be fun; I don’t hate competition.
Thom and Ryan showed priceless exuberance at mile 27 (~3:15 in) which is still so early in the race and the first time we had linked up after getting off the AT at the 2 hour mark. I had moved up to 6th and they were quick to point out how close the guys in front of me were. You guys, there are 23 miles to go!
For the first time, I did the math on the required pace to break 6 hours. It wasn’t very intimidating! I caught up with David McKay for a tie in 3rd/4th by mile 30. We clipped off some 6:25 miles and shared our expectations for the rest of the day. By mile 38, I was clear into 2nd and felt awesome. I’m not sure where the hip flexor pain went but 6:15-6:20/mile was coming easily with a heart rate in the mid 160's and without any cramping sensations. I had some knee pain but whatever - get it while the getting is good! We're banking lots of time here. I had been taking in 2-3 gels and ~45 ounces of drink per hour and started getting into my stash of S-caps. Here's a photo from Matt Flaherty (ultra running stud and 2013 JFK runner up) at mile 38 en route to a 2:51 marathon split for the C&O Canal Towpath portion of the race:
All morning long, the chatter at the aid stations was about how Jim had a 2 mile lead on 2nd place. But by mile 41, it was down to around 9 minutes and shrinking. I could ease it back a notch, take the 7:00-7:30/miles and protect 2nd place and almost surely get my A-goal of breaking 6 hours. I mean, 2nd place at JFK? Are you kidding? That’d be nothing short of an amazing day. But what about trying to win? Surely, he was going for the course record or he’d blow up, right? Maybe I can get lucky.
I hadn't been hurting until I hustled to the top of the climb off the towpath and reached my "red-line" pace for the first time. Here we are and this is what it was going to be the rest of the way! Running the downhills felt like I was on the verge of cramping but I didn't want to cough up the seconds or minutes it'd take to stretch; things had gone too well so far to do that. It’s unbelievable how much nutrition (fluids, salt, sugar) helped me keep plugging away. I’d be buckled over, hands on knees without all of that nutrition.
I hit the 5 to go mark in 5:16 which meant 6:45/mile for the last 5 gets you under 5:50. I had zero steps of sub 6:00/mile pace in me but if I could hold off cramps, I won't run over 7:00/mile. Maybe Jim will cramp? Every ultra runner has been there and when you cease up, it's like sitting in stop and go traffic. The ETA's get ugly quickly. It's not like I can chase him down but maybe I can be there if he gets in trouble.
When people weren't looking, I was talking myself up with encouraging commentary and singing Kelly Clarkson tunes. That's normal at this point, right? I worry about myself when I decide to tackle a 15+ hour race. Anything to break up the monotony of counting utility poles or cars passing by!
I could barely see Jim up ahead with under 2 miles to go but I wasn't gaining anymore. Bummer! Jim is an outstanding talent with track PR's literally 30 seconds/mile faster than mine and his best steeplechase time is an Olympic trials qualifying time. For a laugh, see attached photo of me steepling this summer. Yikes! I'll let you guess who is the more efficient trail runner... It’d be nice to have that kind of speed but the truth is, you don’t need it to do well at these long races. Clean and efficient form is what gets you 99% of the way there. If you look like you’re trying hard early, you’re doing it wrong. Ryan took a video of me at 5 to go and even though I look to be going slow, I’m chugging along at ~6:40/mile. Look slow, go fast!
Jim had something left in the tank and held steady the last few miles. Nobody was going to catch me in 2nd place which is more than I could have asked for. I ended up finishing in 5:49 and as the 10th person to break 5:50 here. I don't think I've ever been more satisfied with a race performance and I think Matt's photo and the attached finish line photo show that.
I’m not sure that I’ll have an ultra race go that smoothly again so I am really appreciating this one. If you have never been out to spectate an ultra marathon, I recommend going out to western MD to watch the country's oldest and largest ultra marathon. Tell Mike Spinnler and the CVAC guys that I sent you. You won't regret it. Well, maybe not until you're racing it the following year and are 4 or 5 hours into the race... but you can deal with that later.
Thank you to Saucony for the continued support of the Hurricane Program and making awesome shoes (fresh pair of Breakthrus did the trick at JFK); "Pink" Spinnler and his crew for hosting this great race and entering me at the last minute; and my bang-up crew of Thom, Ryan, and my dad for spending your day out there with me.